Giving heads up to a musical hero in a band name is asking for trouble, like a guitarist calling his band Jimi Hendrix's Pick Guard. But after Johnny Cash went against his own attorney's advice and gave the Bastards his blessing and his legitimate heir John Carter Cash produced two of this rebel progeny's tracks you'd think Mark Stuart and company would be secure in their assumed birthright. When Stuart name-drops the Man in Black twice on the opening track, "Monte Carlo," it makes the Bastards feel less like outlaws and more like a new-country galoot stressing that he always listens to Hank Williams but never sounds anything like him. The Bastards cut "Long Black Veil," which Cash first recorded in 1965, but eliminate Johnny's trademark "chunka chunka" and add in lots of barren landscape. There's also a mercifully inaudible contribution from Billy Bob Thornton, which you can see on the enhanced CD. A glorified photo op like this will probably get the band on Entertainment Tonight, but they'll never get Mary Hart to say "bastard."
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Once Stuart's "Monte Carlo" veers out of good-boy territory and the Bastards wipe off the goofy grins, the album gets compelling. Producer Mark Howard was Daniel Lanois' engineer for Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, and he brings to this record that same atmospheric distance between the up-front voice and the instrumentation dancing fancifully in the background. With these dynamics, Stuart's voice sounds uncannily like Bruce Springsteen might've if his Tunnel of Love emptied out into The Joshua Tree. Check out the blue-collar uncertainty of "Hard Times" ("This house we built on thin ice/Hard love and hard times") and the brilliantly disguised domestic misery of "Beautiful Cage."
The second half of the album feels like the digital delay stopped working and the band just decided to kick back and rock instead of fleshing out an audiophile project. "Wind It Up" displays the kind of shredding guitar solo you might hear on a Crazy Horse album, while "Marfa Lights" and "Damage Is Done" have the offhand shit-kicking charm of Steve Earle's best filler. Like any other out-of-wedlock progenies, the Bastard Sons display innate identity problems, but the reward of Distance Between is hearing the band stylistically walk the line between country and rock and repeatedly opt to do what's not expected.
The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash
The Rhythm Room, 1019 East Indian School
Scheduled to perform on Thursday, August 22.